By Adam Hess
The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues will open another chapter in their historic rivalry with a first round playoff matchup that gets underway tonight. After finishing the regular season in second place in the Central Division, the Blues will hold home ice advantage over the Hawks, much like their first round matchup in 2014. Will this series have the same result as the last edition? Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of this upcoming series.
The Blues certainly possess a strong forward corps, though it tends to be a bit top-heavy. Vladimir Tarasenko is one of the best wingers in the NHL, and Robbie Fabbri is one of the top young players in the league as well. Jori Lethera is a promising player, though he’s not quite a difference maker. The Blues lack a strong bottom six to matchup well with that of the Blackhawks, and they don’t have a true number one center either.
The Blackhawks’ checking line of Andrew Desjardins, Marcus Kruger, and Andrew Shaw will get the toughest matchups of the series, likely taking on whatever line Tarasenko finds himself on. That leaves Jonathan Toews’ line to take the second toughest matchup – Fabbri’s line. The Hawks will seek to give their second and third line much more favorable matchups, and that will bode very well for them.
The Blackhawks blue line has been one of the most publicized weaknesses throughout this season. They are certainly very top-heavy in that department, with Nicklas Hjalmarsson and Duncan Keith really being their only consistently strong performers. Brent Seabrook has struggled to control possession, and when he was paired with Trevor van Riemsdyk, they were among the worst in the NHL.
However, TVR had success when paired with Hjalmarsson, and the same goes for Seabrook when with Keith. If the Blackhawks want their blue line to be a strength rather than a weakness as this series develops, their best option may be to put those two pairs together. The third pair should be fine to “bum-slay,” so long as one of Erik Gustafsson or Christian Ehrhoff can earn a regular spot in the rotation.
Meanwhile, the Blues possess one of the deepest defensive groups in the NHL. Kevin Shattenkirk and Alex Pertriangelo are two of the league’s best, Jay Bouwmeester is a very solid third defenseman, and Colton Parayko had a very strong debut season, even earning some Calder Trophy consideration. Like the Blackhawks, their third pairing leaves something to be desired, but overall they possess a very strong group of blue liners.
This series could end up being one of the best goaltending matchups not just of the first round, but of the entire 2016 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Corey Crawford and Brian Elliot have been two of the NHL’s best goaltenders all season long. Elliot’s .930 save percentage was tops in the NHL, and Crawford ranked fourth in that department with a .924.
If there’s one concern for the Blues in regards to Elliot, it’s his lack of wins. In 42 appearances this season, he earned just 23 wins, posting a 23-8-6 record. Obviously that record doesn’t add up to 42, so he appeared in several games as a replacement or was pulled and ended up with a no decision. However, he’s typically found another gear in the postseason, so the Blues can remain confident in their netminder.
These two teams are pretty evenly matched, with neither team possessing too much of an advantage in any personnel department. However, one key advantage the Blackhawks hold over the Blues is recent history. Chicago is always one of the best teams come postseason, while the Blues have consistently fallen short. Over the past few years, they’ve consistently been one of the best regular season teams and looked like a Cup contender, only to bow out in the first round the last two seasons and second round in 2013.
Another advantage for Chicago is Joel Quenneville. The fact of the matter is, he is just a flat out better coach than Ken Hitchcock, and even without home ice advantage in the first two games of this series, he will be able to flex his mental muscles on the Blues’ bench boss.
The Blackhawks may not have had the most encouraging past few months, but this team is built for the playoffs, and they know how to get it done when the games mean the most.
Prediction: Blackhawks in six.